Shark Week: Attack Survivors Become Conservation Advocates

DDebbie Salamone's Achilles tendon has not completely healed, but she's already fighting to save the sharks that nearly crippled her


Summer is anniversary time for many shark attack survivors, including myself.

This time of year, we mark the terrifying moments of struggle in the jaws of the ocean's top predator. We recall the ordeals of surgery and rehabilitation. And some of us are lucky enough to reflect on how much worse it could have been. I am mostly healed from a severed Achilles tendon. Many of my survivor friends also have recovered or learned to live without an arm or leg.

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But this year, our annual remembrances reach beyond our own experiences. My friends and I have become shark conservation advocates, and 2011 is the 10-year anniversary of a commitment by countries at the United Nations to develop plans to conserve these animals. Unfortunately, little has been done.

Eight of my survivor friends and I visited the U.N. in New York last fall to press for more help for sharks. As part of my work for the Pew Environment Group's Global Shark Conservation Campaign, I recruited the survivors who were forgiving enough to speak out for the creatures that changed our lives.

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We made some small headway during our visit. But this year's anniversary underscores how much is left to be done. Few countries have developed the promised conservation plans. Of those that have plans, some are not fully implemented, and there's scant evidence the blueprints are as effective as everyone had hoped.

Time is running out. Nearly a third of all shark species are headed for extinction, and up to 73 million of the predators worldwide are killed each year largely for their lucrative fins, which are sold primarily to Asian markets for soup.

These animals need stronger protections from the world's 20 top shark catchers, which account for nearly 80 percent of total reported harvest. Indonesia, India, Spain and Taiwan make up more than 35 percent. In some areas of the world, there simply isn't the expertise, money, capacity or political will to develop sweeping conservation plans. But some first steps could go a long way.


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We are at a critical point, and countries must take action to save these ocean dwellers. They should ban all commercial shark fishing in their waters and create sanctuaries where these creatures will be permanently protected. If governments are not ready to take that step, they should begin first by protecting the most at-risk species and ending fishing of threatened ones. Requiring safer fishing gear that doesn't snare sharks by accident would save untold numbers of the animals from unintentional death.

Despite the slow progress, there have been some successes. Working with Pew, my friends and I helped persuade the United States to tighten its finning ban, resulting in a new law signed by President Barack Obama last December. And several countries -- including Palau, the Maldives, the Bahamas and Honduras -- have now declared their waters as sanctuaries, where shark fishing is prohibited. My fellow survivors, along with Pew, will continue to seek progress in individual nations and through international treaties and organizations such as the U.N.

People often ask why we are fighting so hard to save sharks, especially after what we endured. We recognize that these top predators are key to healthy oceans and play a vital role in the food chain. And we respect them. They are hunters doing what comes naturally. We just got in the way. Given the circumstances, sharks have a lot more to fear from us than we do from them. They need our help.


Image: Shark survivors speak out at the United Nations for international shark protection/Debbie Salamone.